When I turned 41, it was very important to me to have a physical check up. You see, my father died when he was 41 and I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to me at that age.
Most of us have at least some level of concern for our physical health. We try to eat properly, get some exercise, remove stress and get plenty of rest. We may test our blood pressure at the pharmacy. From time to time, we may have a check up at the doctor.
The Bible calls the church “the body of Christ.” Do we ever concern ourselves with the health of the body of Christ? When addressing the churches in Revelation 2,3, God accused some of them of not being healthy. The most direct accusation was to the church in Sardis in Revelation 3:1, “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Being dead, is not exactly being healthy. These accusations suggest that we can’t get complacent, but that we need to think about the matter of the health of our church. “Is ours a healthy church?”
When a doctor examines you, he has a whole bunch of tests that he does, blood pressure, heart rate, blood tests, “samples” and so on. How do you find out if a church is healthy?
At one of the first meetings I had with the ministerial I asked this question of them and they came up with a list of things which would identify a healthy church. There is a man in Germany by the name of Christian Schwartz, who has done research on over 1000 churches and has found that those churches which are healthy and growing have one thing in common. They are healthy in 8 quality characteristics. The interesting thing is that in the informal survey which I did with our ministerial, the same 8 quality characteristics were identified.
The 8 Quality Characteristics of a healthy church are the following: (overhead)
Holistic Small Groups
Inspiring Worship Services
Gift Oriented Ministry
This description of church health makes a lot of sense to me. In all my years of being a pastor, I have often wondered, “how can we be more effective in the work God has given us to do.” As I have thought about this, I came to understand the importance of small groups, of people working in their area of giftedness, of the importance of a worship service that inspires and so on. Then when I discovered this research and the material that goes with it, it was as if my experience and my hearts desire for the church came together in a much more focused way.
Those of you who are farming know very well that you cannot grow grain. In Mark 4:26-29, Jesus tells the parable of the kingdom, comparing it to a seed that grows up. The farmer plants the seed and then really does little else to make the seed grow. He simply waits for the harvest. Indeed, he can’t make the seed grow, only God can make it grow. Mark 4:28 says, “all by itself the soil produces grain.” Yet as farmers, you also know that there are some things you can do to create conditions in which grain will grow well. If you do nothing to control weeds, grain will have a hard time producing. You can even destroy growth if, for example, you apply a herbicide instead of fertilizer. Just so in the church, we cannot grow the church, but we can create conditions which will either promote growth or hinder growth. By making sure that these 8 quality characteristics are present, healthy and growing in our church, we create conditions in which growth can happen. The research which Christian Schwartz did found that in churches where these 8 quality characteristics were healthy, churches were growing.
The same truth is found in I Corinthians 3:6 where Paul says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” We cannot grow the church, but by proper seeding and watering, we create conditions in which God can do what only He can do and that is to grow the church. Later in the same chapter, now using the building imagery, Paul challenges the Corinthian church that each one needs to be careful how he builds. It is possible for us to create conditions in which we hinder God’s work or on the other hand, we can create conditions in which God is given freedom to build His church.
I am sure that we want to be a church in which we create conditions in which God can work. The ministerial is recommending that we as a church ask this question of church health. We will be doing two things over the next few months to work in this direction.
Until the end of November, we will examine each one of the quality characteristics so that we understand that these are Biblical concepts and so that we understand why they make for a healthy church.
The other thing we will be doing is administering a survey to discover just how healthy our church is in each area. Christian Schwartz has developed an instrument to gauge how healthy a church is in these areas, sort of a church blood pressure monitor. Thirty leaders of the church will be doing that survey and learning how we as a church are doing. After that, we hope to proceed with steps necessary to become an even healthier church.
We have assigned the 8 quality characteristics to different people to preach on over the next 2 ½ months. They are not in any particular order and if you look on the bulletin board at the back, you will see when each will be covered. The first one we will look at this morning is “Holistic small groups.”
When we read the New Testament, we realize very quickly that very much of it has to do with Christians relating to one another. The phrase “one another” occurs thirty-six times between Romans and Revelation, referring to healthy relationships among God’s people. As we examine how that works practically, we find that “much of the essence of true church life is worked out in small groups.” It seems obvious to me that a church cannot do all of what it means to be the church as a large group. You cannot be close enough to a whole church in order to share with all the members the things that are a concern to you. A large group has a hard time holding individuals accountable. In the whole church, it is hard to care for the specific needs of individuals. In a large group, not everyone will have an opportunity to use the gifts God has given.
Let me try to illustrate this mathematically. (overhead) In your relationship to a friend, there are two of you and there are two lines of communication - you to your friend and your friend to you. Such a relationship is quite manageable. If you are in a group of three friends, there are now six lines of relationship. There is a formula which is used to find how many lines of relationship exist in a group. A x a - a = lines of relationship. So as we have already seen 2 people, 2 lines, 3 people, six lines. So when there are 10 people, the group has to maintain 90 lines of relationship. This is a lot, but it is still manageable. However, with 250 people, there are 62,250 lines of relationship that need to be maintained. At this point, it is clear that the quality of relationships will not be the same in all of those lines of relationship. Since so much of church life has to do with “one anothering” it is obvious that a good portion of those relationships must happen in smaller groups within the church.
Besides making sense in terms of relationships, research has also demonstrated that “continuous multiplication of small groups is a universal church growth principle.” (overhead) The graph shows the answer to the question, “I have a group in this church where I can discuss my personal problems. On the left side are declining churches and on the right growing churches. On the top are churches where small groups are high quality and on the bottom where they are low quality. To a large degree, where caring groups are high quality, churches also are growing churches.
Being part of a small group in a church not only makes sense mathematically and has been demonstrated to be an effective part of a growing church, it is also a Biblical idea.
The first place that we see the wisdom of small groups is in the Old Testament. When Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, he was the leader of the people. Of course, not everything went smoothly and not all relationships were good and Moses was handling all the conflicts and concerns of the people by himself. When his father-in-law, Jethro, came to visit with him, he noticed that Moses was wearing himself out and wasn’t being effective. He confronted him about the foolishness of what he was trying to do. He advised him to divide the people into smaller groups with judges in charge of each group. They in turn would report to leaders of sub groups and to leaders of tribes and finally, if necessary, Moses would be consulted. The story is found in Exodus 18:13-23. It teaches us the principle that smaller units are more manageable in terms of the functions of what it means to be the people of God.
When Jesus came to earth and began his ministry, we know that he did not do all his work alone nor did he relate only to the large masses which followed him. He had a group of disciples who followed him and from among that group of disciples, he chose 12 to relate to in a particular way. Mark 3:14 says, “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.”
As the church began in Acts, this principle of small groups is found again. Although the new believers met in the temple as a large group, they also met as a small group. As we read this, we need to understand that small groups are not the whole concept of church. The church needs to gather as a whole group. I have heard about families and small groups that stop going to church and only have church as a family or as a small group. This was not the pattern of the New Testament in which they did meet as a whole church. But we are focusing on small groups today and need to notice that the New Testament church met both in the temple and from house to house. We read this in Acts 5:42, “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.” Paul also says in Acts 20:20, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.”
Thus we see that this idea of the church meeting in small groups is a Biblical idea and part of what it takes to be a healthy church.
But we are not only talking about the importance of small groups, we are talking about holistic small groups. What does this mean? Holistic is a fairly new word to me. “Holistic” means dealing with the whole, how the whole works together. So holistic small groups are groups which have not only one function such as Bible study, but which, in a sense, function as the church in miniature. They are places of worship, caring for one another, learning to follow the Lord and places where mission is done. Let us examine each of these aspects as they relate to small groups.
A part of being a Christian is learning to be a follower of Jesus. Hebrews 10:24,25 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Colossians 1:28 identifies the goal of all teaching and nurture in the church. It says, “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”
The whole church is involved in this as we come together for Sunday School and church, but there is another level of it that happens in small groups. Have you ever heard a message and wondered, “What is the preacher talking about?” or “How does this apply to me?” In a small group, these questions can be answered. When we meet with a small group of people we have come to trust and who desire what we desire, we can be more practical and put the principles of the Bible into practice. I read something to the effect that discipleship becomes practical in small groups. In them there is a transfer of life, not rote learning of abstract concepts. In small groups, we can find out what the teachings of the Bible mean in our life as we talk together and bounce ideas off one another and encourage one another.
In the book “Lifestyle Discipleship,” Jim Peterson says, “With modernity our beliefs tend to become relative and our sense of belonging tentative. The basis for accountability for behaviour is lost. As a result, society loses its way and people are damaged.” Small groups are valuable because in the context of close relationships, accountable once again becomes possible.
I heard about a small group meeting in which one member became very dogmatic and said things that were confrontational and offensive to some members of the groups. Another member of the group was skilled at counselling and she was able to help the dogmatic member realize what he was doing and draw out his concerns in a gentle way. She held him accountable for his behaviour.
Because of the lines of relationship, you can’t be accountable to a whole church, but you can be accountable to a small group. When a small group is a place of trust, you can ask that small group of people to hold you accountable. When we see someone walking in a dangerous path, it is much easier to gently confront them if we have established a good relationship through a caring small group.
Another thing that happens in a holistic small group is that we can practically and effectively care for one another. I believe that the sharing time we have as a church is a good thing, but you know what can easily happen. A number of people share, but you might have a concern, but not the courage to share it in a large group, so your concern is not dealt with. Or you do share, it is prayed about and that is the end of it, unless some individual or small group picks up on it. It is impossible to care effectively for 250-300 people as a whole group. Small groups give us the opportunity to care for each other much more effectively.
But we need to be careful how those care groups function. If our concern is ignored, if people hear our concern and then gossip about it beyond the group, if we are judged in our struggles instead of cared for, then caring does not happen. Jim Peterson says, “I have been in Christian communities where I have felt unsafe. Where there is an unspoken agreement that nothing unpredictable will be spoken. Where judgement is always on the surface. Where gossip is quick. I need a place where it’s safe to bring things into the light if I am to continue to grow.”
Such caring is a wonderful experience and can work very well if done properly.
Another benefit of small groups is that it gives the opportunity for people to exercise their gifts. I did not start out preaching to a large group. When I was 13, I began by reading a Bible verse and praying in the small group of boys in the Brigade club I attended. Then I taught a lesson in VBS and Sunday School and I did a Bible study in youth group. Eventually, I became a SS teacher. I was given opportunity to exercise gifts and to have them tested and developed in a small group.
Have you ever realized that we are all deficient? We all have defects in our abilities. No one can do it all. Someone has said, “We are deficient by God’s design. We need our deficiencies because without them we wouldn’t need one another.” As we use the gifts God has given us in our small group, we minister to one another in a whole way.
One of the greatest dangers of small groups is that they become cliques. God has not intended that our small groups become exclusive little clubs which minister entirely to our own needs. Holistic small groups are those in which ministry beyond the group also happens and in which there is an open door to grow and multiply.
Holistic small groups become more effective when they find a way of doing something for others. I have been impressed and encouraged by some of the small groups in this church which have found a mission project which they do. I would encourage all small groups to do so.
But healthy small groups are also those that are prepared to grow. If we want to develop healthy small groups, we need to keep an attitude of openness to others. In some small groups, they always have an empty chair in the room to illustrate the fact that there is always room for more. When growth happens, however, small groups become large groups. At this point, it is wise to make a deliberate effort to multiply by dividing the group into two smaller groups.
So we see that in each function of the church, a small group does it on a smaller scale and adds to what the whole church does.
The story is told of a man who became a Christian, and grew rapidly as he attended church and met with other believers. After a while, he decided that he didn't need all the problems of relating to other Christians and so he stopped attending meetings but, soon noticed that his relationship to God was growing cold. He went to see an old man who listened to his questions and objections. The old man never said a word, but went to the fireplace and took out a coal that was hot and glowing. He set it by itself on the hearth. Soon the coal stopped glowing and the fire went out of it. Then he took it back to the fire and soon it was glowing again. After a while the man left and even though the old man had said no word, he got the message. There are two things you can not do alone. You can't be married alone and you can't be a Christian alone. Although much of community happens in the larger church, the effectiveness of it is multiplied in small groups.
I am glad to see that this church has a variety of small groups and I want to commend you for their development. Healthy churches have positively functioning holistic small groups. The question is, “Are you involved in a small group?” In a few weeks, we will be starting the small group ministry again and I want to encourage you to become involved. If you are not part of one and would like to become part of one, please talk to me and we will get you involved.
The other question we can ask ourselves is, “how can we make our small groups more effective?” I hope in the months ahead that we can work on this together.
I invite you to consider these things as we together seek to be a healthy church.